The Fall 2017 Manga Guide
A Strange and Mystifying Story
What's It About?Everyone from Akio's maternal line has died of an incurable disease. After both of his parents pass, he's left to be raised by his grandfather until he reaches adulthood. Just as his adult life is getting started, his grandpa dies too and it isn't long after that Akio feels himself coming down with an illness. Doctors can cure him, but he remembers his grandpa's dying words mentioned a guardian in an ashtray. In a fit of coughing, Akio searches the ashtray and finds a large canine tooth. From it comes “Setsu,” a guardian spirit that promises to cure Akio by removing the family curse from his body, but the procedure will be more invasive than Akio thought.
Is It Worth Reading?
Color me surprised that A Strange and Mystifying Story is more than one volume long, because the entire arc seems to wrap-up rather haphazardly by the volume's end. Tsuta Suzuki's tale follows Akio, a guy cursed by his lineage by an incurable illness that apparently is caused by a non-sentient demon entity inhabiting his blood. He discovers his family's spirit guardian, a fox guy named Setsu, can remove the demon and cure him. All of this really is just a pretense for some graphic smut because forcing sex on Akio makes the whole process work better for equally contrived reasons.
Sexy demon smut is essentially the point of the volume. At the midway point it started to seem like Suzuki was going to set up some relationship drama. Akio obviously doesn't like the “necessary” sessions with Setsu to cure his illness and resents him for raping him repeatedly. He works with his childhood male friend Tetsu and the two seem close, both emotionally and physically. But then Tetsu meets Setsu and the two get along. Another coworker familiar with the family's history and Akio's deceased grandfather reassures him that Setsu is actually a super nice demon and Akio should just admit that he likes the physical attention.
Somewhere there was an explosion coming from deep within the logic centers of my brain. I try to communicate, mind to page, to let Akio know that this is the literal worst advice but he doesn't listen to me. A few pages later he's considering Setsu as considerate, any previous chemistry with Tetsu is ignored, and the demon and victim resolve to live together like some old married couple. In less than 50 pages, Suzuki managed to extinguish any potential drama or character conflict. Suffice to say, the first volume felt unsatisfying on multiple fronts while also tying off potential to extend the manga. I was actually sure, as the path the narrative was taking became more apparent, that something got the story canceled and the creator was told to wrap it all up. It was the most sensible way to justify knocking down the figurative house of cards the narrative built so far.
But there's actually six more volumes and judging from the first, I couldn't begin to tell you where it's going to go from here. Not because it defied expectations but because outside of introducing new cast members to inject some drama, there isn't anything left to do.
A Strange and Mystifying Story volume 1 is, despite its frequently steamy scenes, something of a slow burn. Supernatural circumstances have Aki and his family's guardian spirit, Setsu, almost immediately swapping spit, and in true yaoi fashion, there's some resistance on Aki's part even as he's blushing and finding himself enjoying it. At least some of the potentially problematic issues with the “no means yes” aspect of many yaoi stories are sidestepped with the fact that Aki agrees to the acts despite his misgivings, even if only to save his own life. Every time Setsu and Aki enjoy one of their frequent makeout sessions, Setsu is sucking out pieces of the curse that's doomed Aki to an early death like many in his family before him. By volume's end, Aki has, mostly thanks to an older coworker's advice, come to terms with how he feels about Setsu, and he manages to prolong the guardian spirit's presence in his life. The story this volume ends in a vaguely conclusive manner, though, so it's actually surprising that there's more story to tell. On the other hand, it's not as if the relationship at the core of the series has been given time to properly grow beyond the initial physical attraction, so perhaps future volumes show the relationship evolving. Although they're each rather one-dimensional so far, Aki's coworkers are all colorful and make for a worthy supporting cast. There's even a short story about a potential romance developing between two of them at volume's end.
This first volume also includes two yaoi short stories by Suzuki, one in modern day and one in a historical setting. Neither provides much opportunity to get to know the characters beyond the physical tension between them, and the modern story, about a teacher and his student, plays on the “forbidden” aspect of the relationship in an attempt to be salacious but falls flat.
Suzuki draws bishonen with aplomb and infuses the characters with a distinct, mature look when appropriate. (The younger men in the bonus short stories being the exception.) Her backgrounds are limited and she attempts to convey mood and setting primarily through tone work. It's not distracting, but it's not remarkable, either. In a sense, the blank backgrounds force the reader to focus on the character relationships, which arguably works to the manga's advantage.
A Strange and Mystifying Story volume 1 is a solid yaoi romance with a compelling spin on the core relationship. Though there aren't graphically depicted sexual acts as of yet, this is a more mature read. Romance readers will find the start of a passionate relationship that's slowly burning into something more than flesh-deep, but the series' appeal is limited to a specific subset of readers.
A Strange and Mystifying Story is actually a collection of three stories – the title tale, a student/teacher romance, and a shorter historical fiction piece. Of the three, I found the third to be my favorite, although all three dealt with more of a power imbalance between the couples than I tend to like. This is most egregious in the second story, which features a high school teacher and a lonely, isolated student. Were there merely an age gap and not the student/teacher power dynamic, this actually would have been a very sweet piece – the student's feeling that he's wrapped in a vinyl sheet, preventing him from fully interacting with the world, is relatable for the age group, and the fact that the other man wants to help free him from it and prove that the world isn't such a terrible place is heartwarming. Personally, the fact that he's the kid's teacher is a big red flag, but if you don't dislike that trope, this is a nice use of it.
The title story is interesting in how the main characters eventually form a more lasting relationship. The fact that Aki and Setsu initially get together because Aki is dying from a mysterious disease and summons Setsu, the family's guardian spirit (of sorts) is good, and while their sexual relationship begins in a less-than-consensual way, it at least isn't as horrific as other examples I can think of within the genre. Aki's discomfort mostly seems to stem from the fact that he doesn't see himself as gay (a relatively common yaoi trope), which is doubtless intended to make the sex seem more consensual than it is. Again, not my thing, but also handled with relative good taste, and by the time Aki is cured, thanks to Setsu (who has a decent excuse for why he “needs” to sleep with Aki), the two have sort of bumbled into a romance. What really makes the story is the supporting character of Aki's boss, who is sweet, supportive, and reminds me a bit of Rei from Love Stage!!. Fans of him will be happy to know that he gets a little side story to close out the volume.
The third story, set in what looks like the Edo period, is also the least developed, but it's got its own charm. It also suffers from a power imbalance between the leads, but since it's a much better relationship than the younger character was initially in, that gets swept a bit under the rug. The art in all three stories is a little varied, indicating different periods in the creator's career, but all work decently well. All in all, A Strange and Mystifying Tale doesn't do much to distinguish itself from other books in its genre. That's really only a bad thing if you're looking for something totally new.
There's a sweetness to A Strange and Mystifying that belies its very ugly heart. The way the story wastes no time tiptoeing around protagonist Aki's homosexuality or in establishing the origins of his desperate need for affection in his loneliness is refreshingly earnest; Tsuta Suzuki avoids the sleazy insinuation that Aki needs to be “corrupted” or “fall” to this. Instead, she allows her character to be vulnerable and kind and honest enough that one wants to see him find love, while wolf-man and family familiar Setsuko plays the role of rugged martyr masquerading as uncaring badass perfectly.
The plot may be a paper-thin excuse for sexual hijinks that contradicts itself multiple times in the early pages, yes: if all members of protagonist Aki's family are supposed to die of mysterious demonic plague when they're young then how did his grandfather live to be so old? Wouldn't his advanced age suggest to others that the curse was broken? If it's because of Setsuko's interference and Setsuko's been with this family so long, why does this curse persists at all? And there may not be a recognizable human personality amongst the cast, they're so thinly written. But the way these characters turn to each other so warmly and end up fighting for each other's well-being with such passion might have you dropping your guard long enough to mistake them for developed people, their love for something healthier than the toxic stew it would be.
Unfortunately, the story's morals are as ambiguously rendered as its always-obscured sex scenes. There's something deeply unsettling in the way dog-man Setsuko forces himself on the unwilling Aki even if here he's justified in doing so because he's sucking disease out of Aki in what must be one of the genre's most obvious metaphors. More unsettling still is that all of Aki's protests are written to make him sound like a petulant child: he calls Setsuko a “pervert doodie-head” when complaining about Setsuko's undeterred advances; he insists Setsuko “isn't just supposed to fit in...not when (he) molests me every night” with a tone and a look that might suggests he's cross with the wolf-man for leaving dirty dishes in the sink last evening. Meanwhile, all of his friends immediately warm to the anthropomorphic canine and begin to chide Aki for not appreciating how good he has it. “If you don't want to do those things, don't do them!” insists Aki's boss, and though Aki is written to love Setsuko, one can't help but feeling this isn't how things would play out if the story was even an iota more searching or honest.
It's the kind of twisted, lusty fantasy that romanticizes an abusive relationship by trivializing and mocking the victim's coping mechanisms or the circumstances that make such relationships so difficult to disentangle from. The back-up stories rounding out this volume only further prove Suzuki's fetish for this kind of unbalanced relationship. Both concern older men in positions of authority over isolated boys whose paternal affection for their downtrodden charges turns carnal after the latter confess their affection; both betray the twisted attitude underlining A Strange and Mystifying Story as nothing accidental.
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